There is currently a spasm of anxiety among professors of journalism and other media bigwigs about an otherwise routine public appointment. A new head of the media regulator Ofcom will be appointed within the next couple of months and – horror of horrors! – the lead candidate is a man who sends shivers down the spine of all right-thinking progressives: Paul Dacre, ex-editor of The Daily Mail and scourge of Guardianistas.
Already there has been a flurry of op-ed pieces denouncing the idea and the battle is heating up. Among those spearheading the attack is an outfit called Byline Times, which recently published a piece headlined “Ten Reasons why Paul Dacre is unfit to be the new Ofcom chair” written by Brian Cathcart, professor of journalism at Kingston University. It is illuminating as it sets out how the liberal establishment view Ofcom’s role and the type of journalism that we should be allowed to consume.
Ofcom has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the liberal left for decades; the arrival of an outsider like Dacre is thus highly unwelcome
The first reason Cathcart gives justifying why Dacre should be disqualified from the job is his “visceral objection to the statutory regulation of journalism”. Cathcart, one of the founders of the campaigning group Hacked Off formed during the hysteria over phone-hacking by tabloid journalists, is a great fan of regulated journalism. If your view of journalism is that it should be firmly regulated by sagacious bureaucrats so that nothing too disturbing should be laid before the public, then you will undoubtedly lap-up Cathcart’s arguments. If, on the other hand, you feel that the whole point of a free press is that journalists should be allowed, and indeed encouraged, to make trouble then you will be on the other side of the fence.
And there is no doubt about it – Dacre is a troublemaker. He used his long tenure at The Daily Mail to undermine and attack the pretensions of the liberal-left in all its manifestations – particularly at the BBC. And number five in Cathcart’s list of reasons supports this: “Dacre has never hidden his hatred of the BBC – by far the country’s most trusted and popular broadcaster, the journalistic output of which is regulated by Ofcom.” Perhaps Cathcart has failed to digest the latest audience research on the BBC which shows that half the country believes that the Corporation fails to represent their values.
Implicit in everything Cathcart says is that the person who heads up Ofcom should be a fan of the BBC, which would continue Ofcom’s stance as a stout ally of the Corporation since 2017 when it became its regulator. The organisation Newswatch-UK has sent a number of complaints to Ofcom about the BBC’s Brexit coverage which, it alleges, has been deeply biased towards Remain. News-watch’s director, David Keighley, says that all his complaints have been stonewalled or dismissed with minimal consideration. Ofcom is currently sitting on a comprehensive complaint using News-watch research which was lodged by myself six months ago. I am not holding my breath.
Ofcom is a bastion of the woke liberal values which permeate the British media
By contrast, Ofcom can move quickly when it wants to. Back in September, cashing-in on the BLM brouhaha, an act on the ITV show Britain’s Got Talent attracted 25,000 complaints from people who thought that a dance routine by the group Diversity was racist towards white people and explicitly endorsed a political movement. Ofcom decided this was nonsense; in fact, the dance troupe’s message was a merely a principled call for “social cohesion and unity”, so nothing for people to worry their pretty little heads about. And there, in a nutshell, is the problem with Ofcom. The organisation is far from neutral; it is a bastion of the woke liberal values which permeate the British media.
This is not too surprising given the number of ex-BBC people who have found a comfortable berth at its headquarters on the Southwark Bridge Road. Three months ago, Ofcom announced six new members of its Content Board (which enforces quality and standards for TV and radio). Of the six, two – Peter Horrocks and Kim Shillinglaw – had previously held senior positions at the BBC: Horrocks was an editor of Panorama, Newsnight and head of current affairs; Shillinglaw rose to be Controller of BBC Two and Four. It’s a fair bet that neither are likely to be overly critical of an organisation that so warmly embraced their talents.
The campaign to stymie Dacre’s candidacy (it’s not yet certain he wants the job, though “informed sources” maintain he is No 10’s preferred man) can rely on the support of many of the grandes fromages of the academic and media world. Ofcom, and indeed the British broadcast media generally, has been a wholly owned subsidiary of the liberal left for decades; the arrival of an outsider like Dacre is thus highly unwelcome. This points to the wider political context of the Ofcom appointment.
The outgoing Commissioner for Public Appointments, ex-Times journalist Peter Riddell, has called attention to a trend which is ruffling feathers in the world of government appointees. In a letter to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Riddell said he fears that political considerations are now weighing too heavily. While, as he says, “there has always been an element of favouring your allies”, he now says this has gone too far and media speculation that favoured candidates are a virtual shoe-in might deter better people from coming forward.
A disproportionate number of Ofcom’s public appointees have come from the left-hand side of the aisle
This might all carry more weight if it was not perfectly clear that, since the Blair years, a disproportionate number of public appointees have come from the left-hand side of the aisle and Tory governments since 2010 have done little to change this. So, a correction is overdue and the Johnson government is merely redressing the balance. In any event, using Riddell’s own annual report as source material, of those candidates for public appointments who declared a political affiliation, the numbers of Labour people who got jobs outweighed Tories (38.2 per cent against 36.8 per cent). This hardly suggests a mass cull of lefties.
The liberal left is on high alert for infringements of what it considers its prerogatives, which most definitely includes the chair of Ofcom. The Byline Times have written to Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden detailing a list of alleged misdemeanours by Paul Dacre which they say would make his appointment “irresponsible”. The list includes allegations that Dacre broke the law by sanctioning phone-hacking and other discreditable activities when he was Daily Mail editor. Dacre has always denied any wrongdoing, or knowledge of wrongdoing.
It may be because the complainants are so clearly partisan that Dowden feels he can ignore them. And, if he does, it will be the clearest sign yet that Boris Johnson is prepared to take on vested interests in the media. This is a fight which is long overdue and which could have profound long-term consequences for the restoration of a healthy political balance in our national broadcaster. A public chastising of the BBC by Ofcom on grounds of political bias could have a salutary effect on an organisation which is notoriously resistant to criticism.
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